Never an un­happy day for D-Day tail gunner

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - JON WELLS jwells@thes­pec.com 905-526-3515 | @jon­jwells

The man named af­ter Christ­mas al­ways seemed happy and was never rat­tled by jabs thrown his way by old age.

Maybe that was just who Noel Shanks was, or maybe it was be­cause he long ago de­fied death when the odds were against him and knew each day was gravy af­ter that.

Shanks flew in a Lan­caster bomber in the Sec­ond World War, where the sur­vival rate for air­crews was about 50 per cent, and for his po­si­tion — tail gunner — con­sid­er­ably less than that.

But he lived to tell of his ex­pe­ri­ences, often to Burling­ton school­child­ren on Re­mem­brance Day.

That in­cluded what he had thought was a rou­tine “op” (oper­a­tion) that be­gan in the dark­ness on the morn­ing of June 6, 1944.

That was when his Lanc soared over the English Chan­nel and the French coast, part of the his­toric D-Day in­va­sion to help free Europe from the Nazis.

Noel Charles Shanks lived to be 94 years old, be­fore time fi­nally took him last Satur­day night.

He was born Christ­mas Day 1922, in Shar­bot Lake, north of Kingston.

He had three sis­ters, and also three broth­ers who served in the war.

“Not one of us got a scratch,” said Shanks, flash­ing his broad smile in an in­ter­view with The Spec­ta­tor three years ago for a story mark­ing the 70th an­niver­sary of D-Day.

His broth­ers have passed away; two of his sis­ters, Rose and Adah, are still alive.

Shanks en­listed at 18. He asked to be a pilot, but was told they needed tail gun­ners. “And I said, ‘OK.’” He vol­un­teered mostly for the ad­ven­ture. The risks were well known, but he be­lieved he would sur­vive.

He didn’t join out of a sense of duty — or at least that thought didn’t oc­cur to him at that age. But he took pride in the no­tion as the years passed.

“When the war comes along, ev­ery­one wants to join the fight,” he said. “I had a good time serv­ing.”

He fig­ured he fired about 50,000 rounds of am­mu­ni­tion on 29 mis­sions, in­clud­ing one ex­change with a Messer­schmitt where he un­loaded 400 rounds.

Once he came close to bail­ing from the Lan­caster, grab­bing his para­chute when an en­gine caught fire.

“I didn’t have to jump. But I had the door open.”

He said a good crew, and luck, kept him safe.

Just over a year af­ter D-Day, Shanks’ crew pre­pared to head to the Far East, for the fi­nal of­fen­sive against Ja­pan.

But in Au­gust 1945, they heard that two bombers had put an end to that the­atre of the war, with the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Na­gasaki.

Shanks liked to quip that the only thing that scared him dur­ing the war was get­ting roped-in to mar­riage over­seas as young man.

In 1952, he mar­ried Eileen, whom he had met on a blind date while golf­ing in Mon­treal.

“It was the per­fect mar­riage. It re­ally was. To have the per­fect mar­riage you have to have a lit­tle money in the bank, and never say no.”

Per­haps it was be­cause they mar­ried a bit later in life, he said, but they never had chil­dren.

Eileen died in 2012 af­ter he had cared for her sev­eral years when she was di­ag­nosed with Alzheimer’s.

They lived in Mon­treal, Toronto, Florida and for a time in Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago, while Shanks worked in ad­min­is­tra­tion for Air Canada when the com­pany had an of­fice there.

His last post was Hill­fair Place, a quiet court in Burling­ton, which he called one of the best cities to live in in Canada.

He had back prob­lems and a hear­ing im­pair­ment — that started with the deaf­en­ing roar of the Lan­caster — but he kept busy wood­work­ing, read­ing two news­pa­pers a day, and watch­ing the oc­ca­sional old movie.

“I never had an un­happy day in my life,” he said. “I don’t let things bother me.”

When asked how he felt about death, he said: “It’s com­ing.” And then he laughed.

In De­cem­ber, he moved to a re­tire­ment home. On April 27, he was ad­mit­ted to Joe Brant Hospi­tal. He died early in the evening on May 6, two days be­fore the 72nd an­niver­sary of VE (Vic­tory in Europe) Day.

He will be buried this sum­mer at Shar­bot Lake, join­ing Eileen.

In his fi­nal years, you could see Noel Shanks emerg­ing from his home to hoist a small Cana­dian flag in the morn­ing light.

Later, at sun­down, he would take the flag back in­side, putting the colours to bed be­fore he slept the care­free sleep of a life well-lived and mis­sions ac­com­plished.

GARY YOKOYAMA, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR FILE PHOTO

Noel Shanks, 94, was a Lan­caster tail gunner.

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